Three Signs Of Spiritually Abusive Pastors & Leaders

Text: Ezekiel 34:11-16

In the name of Jesus. Amen.


It is obvious that leaders are called to protect, support, and defend those they serve. When we consider the illustration of a shepherd and a bunch of sheep, it becomes even more obvious. Sheep do not exist for the shepherd, but a shepherd exists for the sheep.  


However, as we have learned throughout history, this is not always the case. Often, those in leadership (we can call them shepherds) forget the fact that they are supposed to be there for the sheep. They flip everything upside down, making the sheep serve them.  


Take our reading from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel as an example. Earlier on in chapter 34, we hear that the kings, officials, and religious leaders were not serving the sheep – the people of Israel. The shepherds were not about the interests, well-being, and overall good of the people of Israel. But instead, the bad shepherds were all about themselves.  


Now, bad shepherds are fairly easy to spot for most of us. If I were to ask you for names of bad leaders, I know that you could quickly name several politicians that have zero concern for us, as citizens, but are only concerned with their rise to power. We actually do not need to name them, for we all know who they are. They are the type of people that will never stand up for anything of integrity but run at the smallest sign of struggle. These bad leaders are self-centered; they are more concerned about maintaining their own power than actually suffering to do what is right. To these pathetic leaders, we say, “Shame on you.”  


But things become a little more complicated within the church. I am not sure if it is because we are more trusting of people in the church or simply the fact that we expect church leaders to be different from the world. Nonetheless, the church has a long history of being a place where spiritual abuse occurs. Keep in mind that people in leadership in the church are just as much sinners as politicians, if not more. Remember that all of us have the same old Adam. We all have that thirst for power, control, and comfort. 


So, regarding the church, what are the telltale signs of spiritual abuse? When are shepherds abusing the sheep?  


First, consider power. In the Old Testament reading, the bad shepherds ruled with force and harshness. That is to say; they used power as a way to get what they wanted. They flexed their power to make the sheep cringe – to back down. In the church, this is like a pastor saying, 


“I am the chief shepherd! You must listen to me!” 


Now, pastors do have spiritual authority with what is called the office of the keys. However, a healthy shepherd does not have to demand or talk about power so that others can notice it. A good shepherd will never hit the sheep with his shepherd’s staff to prove to the sheep how powerful he is. Heaven’s no! But instead, true power is always using one’s power – and authority - for the good of the sheep. In other words, power is never self-serving.  


Beware of the thirst for sinful power in the church. Power is not to inflate the egos of shepherds. Power is never to be used to manipulate sheep to one’s own advantage but is always used by shepherds to patiently correct, rebuke, encourage, and serve the flock. To state this as clearly and bluntly as possible, power is used for the good of the sheep, not for the good of the shepherd.  


Second, consider control. Bad shepherds are not really interested in strengthening the sick and healing the injured. Considering the reading from Ezekiel again, the bad leaders during the time of Ezekiel did not build up the weak and did not heal the sick. Why would they? It was easier to control sheep when the sheep were wounded. 


You see, if you are a bad shepherd hell-bent on using power for control, the worst thing possible would be for sheep to be healthy. Wounded sheep never challenge abusive power. Hurting sheep do not have the strength or courage to question corrupt spiritual authority. However, healthy sheep? Well, they can bite back. Healthy sheep threaten control.  


Let me be a bit more specific. For example, in the church, a bad pastor keeps sheep wounded when they call out sin but never give a solution to their sin. Now, keep in mind, a pastor can courageously and boldly point out sin in his congregation and be spot on. But if the pastor never courageously and boldly pours the Gospel into the ears of his repentant parishioners, well…. the pastor is keeping the sheep wounded. The pastor is spiritually abusing his flock.  


While some pastors can mess this up unintentionally, mark this… other pastors do this intentionally. Beware of the wretched mindset that believes that if the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins is given, then it will result in too much freedom. That is to say, many bad pastors believe that the freeing message of the Gospel actually produces, encourages, and grants people a license to sin. The bad pastors say to themselves, 


“If these sheep hear about the forgiveness of sins, they will keep on sinning. They will never change their ways.”  


And so, these shameful pastors, in an attempt to control their flocks, preach fire and brimstone sermons every single week. They bark loudly at sin but do not preach the healing Gospel. Instead of the Gospel, they shame and guilt their sheep to control them and make them perform the way they want them to perform. Again, they properly wound them by the Law – revealing sin. But then, instead of rushing toward them with the Gospel, they shame them to the grave and possibly hell itself. They do this to spiritually control and manipulate the flock. Lord have mercy!  


 Third, consider comfort. Through power and control, bad shepherd ‘use’ the sheep for their own comfort. The bad shepherds of Ezekiel fed themselves and not the sheep. They clothed themselves with the wool of the sheep and killed the fat ones to eat. Jesus picks up on this theme in John chapter 10 as well. He calls these bad shepherds, 'hired hands.' To paraphrase Jesus, 


“A hired hand is neither a real shepherd nor good. The sheep do not mean anything to him because the only thing that matters to the hired hand is the hired hand. And so, when the hired hand sees a wolf coming, he runs for it. He leaves the sheep to be destroyed by the wolf. The hired hand is only in it for the money and what he can get – not give.” 


Dear friends, this is the reason why I am suspicious of people who want to be pastors. I am serious. 

I remember meeting an employee at Starbucks who saw my clerical collar and said, 


“Cool, I am a pastor too, isn’t it great and fun? I was ordained online; where did you get ordained?”  


I remind you that this happened shortly after I left the hospital where a parishioner had died.  


Friends, real pastors plunge downward into the afflictions and shadowy sins of their flock, into the hearts of their soul-suffering parishioners. A pastor’s trajectory is not upward and onward to glory, accolades, cherry pie, and unicorns jumping over rainbows. But instead, the pastor’s trajectory is always downward into the sufferings of his flock. Bad shepherds always seek comfort from their flock; good shepherds learn to suffer with and for their flock.  


Now, let’s get serious right about now. We have heard clearly that bad shepherds go the way of power, control, and comfort, whereas good shepherds do not. I would like to stand before you and tell you that I am not a bad shepherd but a good shepherd. However, that would be a lie, for I like power, control, and comfort. I am a weak man – a sinner in thought, word, and deed. Secondly, today’s readings are not necessarily about ‘good pastors’ but the ‘Good Shepherd.’ And who is this Good Shepherd? It is Christ! 


Never forget, dear Baptized Saints, that even though pastors baptize, teach, preach, marry, and bury Christians, they are nothing more than simple servants who stand in the stead and by the command of Christ to hand out the goods – to distribute the Word and Sacraments. Yes, pastors are shepherds, but they are not the Good Shepherd - there is only one who is good. There is only one Good Shepherd – His name is Jesus.  


Hear this right now! It was Christ, your Good Shepherd, that bled, died, and rose for your justification.


It was Christ, your Good Shepherd, who plucked you out of darkness and placed you into light by the mighty waters of baptism. 


It is Christ, your Good Shepherd, who fills your ears with assurance in saying, “Your sins are forgiven.”  


It is Christ, your Good Shepherd, who protects you from the evil one as you sleep. 


It is Christ, your Good Shepherd, who gives you rest from the condemnation of sin. 


It is Christ, your Good Shepherd, who frees you from guilt and shame, as He forgives your sins in His Supper.   


It is Christ, your Good Shepherd, who leads you to the lush pasture of eternal life.  


Baptized Saints, hear this! It is Christ, your Good Shepherd, who left the comforts of heaven to go to Calvary’s thorny cross – for you. It is Christ, your Good Shepherd, who came not to be served but to serve you. His power was not used for Himself but you – to snatch you from the devil, chase away fear, stomp on death, and atone for your sin.  


You have a Good Shepherd. He did not choose ego-centered-power.  He did not choose selfish-control.  He did not choose slothful-comfort. He chose you – and considered it well-worthwhile. 


In the name of Jesus, your Good Shepherd. Amen.

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